The Vision Thing – And Its Limits (Part One)

Written by: Robert B. Denhardt, Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy

University of Southern California

When people are asked what constitutes leadership, they will almost always say something about vision – that the leader is the one with the vision and the one with the power to move the organization toward that vision. In either case, the vision is a long term statement of a desired future, and is typically elaborated by a statement of mission, which explains the rationale of the organization and the means of achieving the vision. Based on the mission statement, more specific objectives are then developed.

I’ve recently become skeptical of the vision thing, especially as a definition of leadership. At a practical level, many groups and organizations create (or unveil) a new statement of vision, mission, and objectives, experience about three weeks of buzz, then ignore the stated vision, etc. and go on their way. There are several reasons for this. Some plans are simply not implementable – they bear little relevance to the actual work “on the ground.” Others are almost immediately outdated, simply because things change so quickly. You can’t plan for every eventuality. To quote Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – “Any plan won’t survive its first encounter with reality. The reality will always be different. It will never be the plan.” And when this happens the plan becomes irrelevant and simply takes up shelf-space.

Second, and even worse, is the opposite effect – groups and organizations become so tied to their vision that it acts as a straightjacket, preventing members of the group from recognizing emerging trends and responding to those new circumstances. Many start-ups fail precisely because their founders are so tied to the their vision, so psychologically committed, that they fail to see that what they hope to accomplish is unachievable or has already been done by someone else, preempting the market. And often just a slight deviation from the vision would have saved the company.

Certainly groups and organizations need a direction or a path to start out on, but they also must recognize when they need to move in a new direction or take a new path. More than tunnel vision, they need peripheral vision, the ability to see the big picture, including emerging threats and opportunities. And they need agility, the capacity to learn and to change directions in both a nimble and sophisticated way. Indeed, I would say that the capacity for agility and adaptability trumps vision and plan every time.

Third, in my view, the vision thing is simply not essential to leadership. Leadership is about energizing a group, an organization, or a society. Certainly a group may be energized by the beauty and elegance of a vision – think, “I have a dream” – but there are many others ways that groups can be energized as well. A group may be energized in reaction to a disaster; a group may be energized by an attack from outside; a group may be energized by someone modeling excellence in performance.

The role of the leader is not to create the vision, but to develop and articulate a direction and purpose for the group or organization. The opposite – having a vision or mission imposed by the leader – may generate early excitement, but over the long term will likely suck energy away from the group or organization. And, as we noted before, visions and plans quickly encounter “contrary realities” and lose their relevance to a rapidly changing “real world.” Frequently, those “on the ground” will recognize those contrary realities more quickly than those at the top and active resistance may occur. A vision, in such cases, quickly turns into fantasy. Just as many other “positives” carry with them the seeds of their “negatives,” so it is with vision. Merriam-Webster cites the following synonyms for “vision”: chimera, conceit, daydream, delusion, fancy, figment, hallucination, illusion, phantasm, pipe dream, unreality, fantasy. How many visions have you seen that ultimately turn into delusion, etc.?

Finally, since leadership must appeal to both the head and especially the heart. In contrast to real acts of leadership, most strategic planning processes implicitly seek to rationalize the organization’s vision through statements of mission and objectives that drain the vision of whatever emotive power it may have held at the outset. In implementation, vision dissolves into technique. (In Part Two, we will note some correctives.)